August 02, 2004 12:00 PM

To be sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands the perils of NASCAR racing. “I know when I go out there, I could die,” he said in 2002 of the sport that killed his father. “If I quit driving race cars because of that, I wouldn’t be living.” On July 18 he drove himself close to the edge. It all began smoothly enough at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., where Earnhardt, 29, was warming up his canary yellow Corvette for a race later that morning. “The last thing I said to him was take care, buddy, have fun,” says co-driver Boris Said. “But he hadn’t been gone a minute when it happened.” Rounding a turn on his first lap, Earnhardt’s car spun out, slamming into a concrete wall and bursting into flame. “It was a huge ball of smoke,” says Said, who watched in horror with thousands of onlookers. “It took him 15 seconds to get out, but it seemed like an eternity.”

As the car burned spectacularly and rescue workers rushed to the scene, Earnhardt managed to pry himself out of the driver’s side window. A track volunteer helped him get clear of the blaze. “Dale started walking with him, hunched over, then he fell to the ground,” says one witness. “That guy really helped save the day.”

For both loved ones and fans, the accident was a frightening reminder of the crash that took the life of 49-year-old Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the last lap of the Daytona 500 three years ago (see box). His son was far luckier. Earnhardt Jr. escaped the accident with only second-degree burns to the inside of both thighs and his chin, thanks to his full-face helmet and the flame-resistant suit and gloves, which absorbed the heat of the blaze. “He was grimacing because he was in a lot of pain, but he was more disappointed than anything else,” says Said, who stayed by his friend’s side while he was at the University of California Davis Medical Center. “He really felt bad about wrecking the car. I kept trying to help him take his mind off everything. I was telling him to think about pretty girls. But he said, ‘I can’t. My legs are on fire.’ ”

Earnhardt, legs wrapped in gauze, was released from the hospital the day after the crash and flew to his home in Mooresville, N.C., where a small group of family and friends known as the “Dirty Mo Posse” gave the bachelor an emotional welcome. Criticism from reporters that Earnhardt is too valuable to his team to take extra chances by racing in non-NASCAR events like the Sonoma one, where he drives a type of car he’s relatively unfamiliar with, just makes the Posse members bristle. “Instead of playing, going to the beach, he was trying to improve his skills as a driver,” says friend J.R. Rhodes. “He wants to be able to handle every type of racing. He wants to be the best.”

Although a spokesman compared Earnhardt’s wounds to a “bad sunburn,” at least some on the circuit worry there may be deeper scars. “Once it catches on fire, it’s like someone trapped you and tied you down inside of an inferno,” says three-time NASCAR champ Darrell Waltrip. “That’s a driver’s worst nightmare.”

If he’s suffering such lingering effects, Earnhardt is not letting on. Pronouncing himself “bummed” to be temporarily sidelined from competition, he quickly announced plans to compete at the New Hampshire International Speedway this Sunday the 25th, the next race on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, where he ranks second behind driver Jimmie Johnson. His team began making adjustments to his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet so that it will be more comfortable to drive with his injuries, adjusting safety straps, improving ventilation and adding a system that blows air on the driver. “The burns are in an uncomfortable place for driving,” says Said. “But he’s like his father. He’s tough.”

Pam Lambert. Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles, Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, N.C., and Andrea Billups in Miami

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